Avid Reader's Previous Ramblings
(These pages are contributed by Glenis Hesk, a resident of Cold Ashby, who was, for several years, a part time tutor for Leicester University at their centre in Northampton where she taught courses on the novel.
Glenis designed author-based and thematic courses involving not only classic works by nineteenth, early and mid-twentieth century novelists but also fiction by contemporary writers, including Ian McEwan, Graham Swift, Kuzuo Ishiguro, Susan Hill and Kate Atkinson.
She remains an ‘avid reader’ and many friends and former students often ask her to recommend and comment upon new and recently published novels - this has prompted your editor to persuade her to contribute her ‘ramblings’ to this site.)
Reviews below were written over recent months.
Have just finished reading Gillespie and I by Jane Harris which I found interesting, intriguing and, at times, a little disturbing.
The 80 year old narrator, Harriet Baxter, a spinster living with a paid companion in Bloomsbury in 1933, decides to write a book about a little known Scottish artist, Ned Gillespie, who in 1892, at the age of 36, had burned most of his paintings and committed suicide. What unfolds, however, is not so much a memoir to the painter as a retrospective account of Harriet’s involvement with Gillespie, his wife, family and friends - an involvement beginning with a chance meeting when Harriet comes to the aid of Gillespie’s formidable mother, Elspeth, and ending in tragedy and a criminal trial.
The main setting is in Glasgow, around and just after the International Exhibition held there in 1888.
Woven into the ‘history’ of Harriet’s past, however, is also a ‘present’ 1933 narrative which discloses details of the current and increasingly worrying circumstances of her life in London.
The account of past events in Glasgow and, later, of the trial in Edinburgh, reads like a Victorian mystery tale and in her adoption of a period-related narrative style which often incorporates a ‘quaint’ vocabulary and her detailed historical references, Jane Harris quite successfully achieves a sense of authenticity. There are in places, perhaps, deliberate echoes of Wilkie Collins and, as in Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the question of the narrator’s ‘reliability’ has to be considered. Clues to what may (or may not) follow are subtley scattered, compelling one to continue reading and, though ‘dark’, the novel is not without humour - many ‘barbed’ turns of phrase are most amusing.
On the whole, Gillespie and I is an engaging read, if at times somewhat disconcerting.
Though initially amused by Alan Bennett’s Smut: Two Unseemly Stories, I was ultimately rather disappointed by the book.
Bennett’s acute ear for the nuances and absurdities of seemingly ‘normal’ conversational exchanges between his characters is, as always, entertaining and his eye for the oddities of their apparently ‘ordinary’ behaviour remains keen.
With the unfolding of each of the two stories, however, I sensed that in his selection of ‘unseemly’ subject matter Bennett had set out to shock the reader simply for the the sake of being ‘shocking’ and that his usually engaging mischievousness has turned somewhat sour.
Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty won the Booker Prize in 2004 and, earlier this year, many suggested that his latest novel, The Stranger’s Child, might bring its author the award for a second time. This new novel has not made the shortlist, however, and, having read it, I am not entirely surprised.
It is not that the novel is uninteresting, nor does it lack literary merit, complexity or depth - quite the opposite. Certainly, it is very long but this was not a problem for me - I simply found it, at times, rather tedious and feel that more rigorous revisions might have been beneficial.
Having a large cast of characters and a time-scale spanning several decades (each of its five sections is set in particular years - 1913, 1926, 1967, 1979/80 and 2008), The Stranger’s Child concerns the relationships and interactions between members, friends, associates and descendants of two families - the aristocratic Valances of Corley Court and the middle-class Sawles. The initial connection between these two families stems from the friendship, forged at Cambridge, between George Sawle and Cecil Valance, a not particularly good Georgian poet who achieves posthumous fame on the strength of one poem written on a visit to George’s house, ‘Two Acres’, in 1913. The narrative which follows is complicated, involving not only the ‘legacy’ of Cecil’s reputation but also of his behaviour during his visit and afterwards until his death in the Great War. Daphne Sawle, George’s sister, is a pivotal character for much, though not all, of the book.
In a ‘ Bridesheadish’ way, this novel is a cleverly-wrought ‘family saga’, hinting also at elements of Forster’s Howards End, Hartley’s The Go-Between and McEwan’s Atonement. As it unfolds, the novel explores many themes relating to literature, architecture, music, literary journalism and publishing. The ‘feel’ of particular periods/decades is well-realised and there are many descriptive, evocative passages relating to particular environments and houses. The novel documents changes in social behaviour and attitudes. Certain explicitly sexual scenes, however, may discomfort some readers.
In several respects The Stranger’s Child is a terrific achievement on Hollinghurst’s part, but, finally, I was left with the feeling that he had, perhaps, over-egged his elaborately constructed pudding.
Have just finished Graham Swift’s new novel Wish You Were Here which I enjoyed despite its rather sombre content and its intentionally slow pace.
Swift’s realisation of one man’s reactions and responses to a sudden death which precipitates a revisiting of former losses, not only of people but also of animals, land and a way of life, is poignant. Depictions of rural landscapes, weather and seasons are, as always with this author, compelling and evocative.
This is a serious, somewhat circuitous fiction which, as it gradually unfolds, delves deeply into the substance of family relationships, closely examining notions of affection, loyalty, distrust and betrayal.
Prompted by the death in action in Iraq of his estranged younger brother, Tom, the novel’s protagonist, Jack Luxton, confronts experiences which have been suppressed for a decade. The time-scale frame of Wish You were Here is just one day but the ‘story’ meanders back and forth to cover present, recent and past events in Jack’s life.
Having sold the two ailing family farms in Marleston, Devon on which each had grown up and ‘slaved’ and which each had eventually inherited, Jack and his wife, Ellie, have for many years owned a popular and financially successful caravan site on the Isle of Wight. News of his brother’s death, combined with Ellie’s restrained response and refusal to accompany him to the repatriation ceremony in Oxfordshire and the burial back in Devon, result in Jack’s mental distress and leads to marital discord. Both the pleasures and the hardships of his previous life on Jebb Farm, including the traumas and tragedies incurred as a result of outbreaks of B.S.E. and Foot and Mouth disease, as well as family difficulties, are recalled by Jack as he attempts to deal with his grief.
Though a third-person narrative, events are mainly focalised via Jack’s perspective but not entirely - other characters’ views are sometimes employed. Also, there are occasional hypothetical passages where the omniscient narrator speculates upon what might or might not have occurred or been said at given moments - I found these slightly annoying.
Wish You Were Here, with its descriptions of the countryside and the realities of farming, its references to changes in the social structure of rural living over recent decades and its mention of the anonymity of motorways and the ‘urban’, is in part a subtle interrogation of notions of Englishness and an altered England. Allusions to major global events also suggest that into his tale of a man, a family and a farm, Swift has woven slender threads which make his novel a comment upon an altered world.
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